Interview with Michael Harvey
This interview with Michael Harvey by Nicholas Sloan first appeared last year in Forum 22, the journal of Letter Exchange. The two make a happy combination, old friends and both lettering artists. Michael’s voice comes over loud and clear, and we’re pleased to be able to reproduce it here.
Drawing is the Key
I arrived at Michael Harvey’s house in Bridport armed with a short list of questions and some cake. I had first been here over 35 years ago, green and eager for advice. Michael was friendly and helpful then, and has remained so ever since. We sat together now with coffee in his sunny conservatory, and talked (and laughed) for an hour. What follows is a distillation of our conversation.
I forget how you first came to work for Reynolds Stone.
That was chance. I was at Ditchling, working with Joseph Cribb, Eric Gill’s first apprentice. And heard that Reynolds wanted an assistant. I wrote to Reynolds and said “can I be your assistant?” and Reynolds said “Well, perhaps we should meet”, and the whole thing grew from there. He was very busy with memorials, and really enjoyed wood engraving more. In the end I went down there in ‘55, and I’m still here; pure chance.
Did you ever try your hand at wood-engraving?
Once. He lent me a couple of blocks, but I couldn’t do it; it was too fiddly and small for me. I like big things.
Who were your early influences, apart from Gill and Stone?
Walt Disney. When I was a boy, I could draw all the Disney characters, and I thought I could go to America and help him! Growing up in the war, I drew bombers…and steam engines. [back to Gill!]
It’s easy to see how your book-jackets informed your stone lettering; did it work the other way round at all?
I suppose I had a love of shadows in letters, so I drew book-jackets and typefaces with shadows. I like that 3D drama of the shadow in the letter. I suppose that comes from letter-cutting. I wonder if it does, or whether it is just delighting in the playfulness of the effect? A graphical effect, yes: doesn’t it look great! Draw an outline: it’s just an outline, then you make one side a bit darker—aah!—look at that, how far can we push this?
When you are drawing letters for stone, are you actually conscious of the third dimension?
No. When I draw on the stone or slate, it’s just a start. I don’t do a very careful drawing and transfer it carefully. I don’t do that because it is so tedious. So I believe in drawing, in crayon or chalk or whatever, then I’ll rough it all in, wash all the pencil work off, and then you are back to light and shade.
You have often said that gravestones are no place for experiment and self-expression, but how do you really account for the divide between the rich variety of invention in graphic work and the relatively narrow palette of your cut letters? If you had not had first book-jackets and then fonts to experiment with, do you think that your cut lettering might have been wilder?
[long pause] No. Any graphics, like book-jackets, is ephemeral; but I do think—I hate the word traditional, or classic—that you [should] wear your best suit for gravestones. Is it a question of etiquette? Partly, yes. Type is a good way of designing a gravestone. You look at the title page of a well-designed book; that’s the way of getting the levels of importance, and not just scattering things on. What I don’t like is, [how] some people have a mark: they have their favourite forms and they just slap them on stones. They haven’t designed. Everything is design—design is what drives everything—so if you choose your letterform, how it’s arranged, what works, that’s a design way of looking at things. You don’t just say “I love these letters I saw in Germany”. But that’s just my way. It’s partly my background of course, with Reynolds. But he used flourishes, and I don’t, on the whole. Type sets the pace in a way…Western Roman letterforms. If you are doing an exhibition for something, then you can let you hair down for all the other stuff.
I’ve always really loved the way your italic looks as though it has been poured out of a jug; it just runs along the line, and I’ve never been able to achieve that. I’d love to know the secret.
[long pause] Well, it comes with drawing; drawing so many layouts for gravestones, and you draw quite quickly—I draw quite quickly. Then I go back and refine them; but I think—this sounds ridiculous—my italic shapes come from making model Spitfires through the Second World War, shaping the wings of Spitfires. A question of fluid dynamics? Yes, that’s right, it’s not intentional, I look back and think, well, maybe that’s where it comes from. I don’t fool around with them, I just draw them…I’m impatient too, I don’t want to muck about with them. I don’t want to worry about—is that the right way the serif should go? The best work you do is done against the clock…You haven’t got time to fool around with it and worry about it—and look at books about it! Never look at books. [And] don’t go to art school!
Where do you see yourself on the calligraphy/typography risk/safety spectrum?
Calligraphy is ok to do a demonstration, but I don’t do calligraphy because it makes me anxious, like walking a tightrope. Does it make you anxious rather than inspire you? Some people depend on the adrenalin I think, and they produce really good work. Yes, they are calligraphers, they take risks. I don’t like risk I suppose. I admire calligraphers, but I have this basic feeling that calligraphy is just a sort of sideshow since the invention of movable type. Type sets the pace.
Did you ever evolve your technique for drawing on stone?
It goes back to Reynolds, it was Reynolds’ drawing on slate. He would draw guide-lines in pencil, then he’d get out white paint, and build up layers of stuff, you know; but it wasn’t finished by any means—then he’d start cutting; and then he’d cut here and there, anyway—but when it was done it was lovely. It’s like a painter will apply paint, wipe some off, put some more there and move things around. He didn’t have the disciplined “I’ll start here, and there, and there: perfect, now I’ll cut it”. He didn’t do that, he worked like a painter. Did he ever “do calligraphy”? He always used to say that your handwriting should be good enough to suggest that you’d be pretty good if you really tried. He understood—I’m keen on this, this is what I’ve taught at Reading—where shapes come from. Without knowing where the shapes come from you are all at sea. How do you work on type without knowing where the shapes come from? [With minuscules] the basic shapes came from broad-edged pens, used in a certain way, in a certain society. At Reading I had them cutting punches in wood. You write on or draw on the calligraphic form, [and] you’ve got to cut the wood away. You see then how the ultra-thin bits, you’ve got to boost them up, because they’re going to to be printed. That’s educational.
How would you characterise the flavour of your own lettering?
Pat recognises my lettering, I don’t really—she say’s “Is that yours?”, I say “is it mine? I suppose it is”. [If] six lettercutting masters, cut the same inscription, in the same alphabet, you can tell—they are all different. And you can’t do anything about that…it’s a voice. The whole thing’s a mystery I think…It goes back to the way I draw. I’ve done that book you’ve probably seen, where I photograph my hands drawing [Creative Lettering Today, p70 ff]. I photographed my hand drawing, to tell me what’s going on. Everybody’s hand is different…we are obviously all individuals so our fingers work in different ways. Do you think the subtleties of the different ways in which our fingers work survive the process of cutting in stone? Yes. It’s the way your eyes see things; your visual judgement must somehow absorb all the drawing. In my case, I like the serif to smoothly exit, and I don’t want anything dead straight—unless you are cutting a sans serif and you want that effect, but that’s different. I like the idea, as in the Ellington typeface, that there’s a slight shaping going on the whole time. When I was doing the big drawings, I had a piece of plastic slightly slightly curved, so that I could draw against that. A lot of retouching goes on; I love retouching. I thought you were impatient with that sort of thing. I am, but you get what you want when you retouch—you mustn’t over-retouch because [it looks] buggered-about-with. That’s what’s wrong with calligraphy: you can’t retouch the stuff. [Using] reproduction you can retouch in order to get just the effect you want.
You know the way that some actors (like Laurence Olivier) always seem to play themselves, whereas others (like Alec Guinness) are chameleons? Do you think you are an Alec Guinness or a Laurence Olivier in letter design?
…I’d be a Guinness I think. You’re a chameleon? Yes.
Has the inspiration for your typefaces come from you or from external briefs?
The typeface ideas—I’ve done round about, I think ten, no twenty typefaces—apart from the ones for the Bodley Head, they have all been my ideas, they haven’t been directed by anybody. Are any of them in any sense visual representations of Jazz, or were the names retrospective? Oh, they came retrospectively. Did you listen to jazz while you were cutting letters? No—while I was drawing letters, yes, when I was drawing letters for book-jackets I played jazz all the time, but not while I was cutting. Why not? It’s too noisy! Do you listen to anything while you are cutting? No; maybe a test match.
How easy would it be for you to select your eight desert island fonts?
My fonts or other people’s fonts? Whichever you like. Yes, I could do that quite easily I think. Yes, fonts I admire. Go on. Oh! What, eight? Oh, Gordon Bennett! [long pause] well, I’d like some work of Georg Trump, at least one of his fonts. Trump got me away from the whole Reynolds Stone English good-tastey, National-Trusty stuff. So, hmm. I don’t look much at other people’s fonts. Yes, you can afford to be completely home-baked, you set everything in Mentor these days. You’d have to have Mentor. Yes, I’d have Mentor, yes I’d have to. Studz…Mezz… Strayhorn…
[The final choice came in an email later in the day: Palatino, Optima, Janet (digital—Reynolds Stone), Trump Medieval, Codex, Strayhorn, Gill Sans, Mentor.]
Cartier-Bresson said “to be a good photographer, you shouldn’t be interested in photography”. I like that kind of thing, you could apply it to an interest in lettering. Lettering is just making shapes, it’s just what you do. Some people say interested in lettering—! That’s the problem with most calligraphy isn’t it: it’s about itself. It’s a religion. Nobody needs it apart from the calligraphers.
… I think we have certain abilities, and we just go with them.
When I arrived at Michael’s studio, he was working on his new book A Life with Letters [since retitled Adventures With Letters], and putting the finishing touches, by chance, to the section Drawings. The text of that section is so pertinent to our subsequent conversation that I quote it here in full, as a summary of the ground that we covered.
“Drawing is the key. Drawing frees the hand from the demands of the broad-edged-pen, the sign-writers’ brush. The pencil is neutral. The eye and mind are in control. Since the arrival of movable type, the written letter has taken a back seat. Type is now the model for the western alphabet.
“Essentially, the early cutters of steel punches adapted written characters to withstand the repetitions of the printing press. As punchcutting skills improved, as presses, inks and papers improved, types grew more refined. The true type character had arrived.
“The engraver’s tools, as with pencils, are neutral with regard to the shapes engraved or drawn. The written letter is still the essential reference point for our alphabets. Calligraphy survives as a pastime, and in some hands as a fine art.
“Depending on the purpose, my drawings may be based on classic roman letters, sometimes compressed to fill a space or for effect, or a script that suits a purpose, where I may use a ragged ink outline, filled in with solid or sketchy black. Unlike written letters, mine are for reproduction so can be improved by retouching, a great freedom!
“Over many years, drawing becomes almost automatic, our fingers stretching and compressing as familiar forms are drawn. Our individual fingers, vision, practice give our drawings a particular character, not a ‘style’ but our own mark.”
The conversation could have taken many forms—I could cheerfully have spent hours discussing the finer points of each of Michael’s typefaces for instance—but it just so happened that we both had drawing on our minds.
I came away with two morals: in the first place our attitudes to our trade tend to be shaped by our own particular skills: we can hardly help valuing what we are good at and devaluing what we are not.
And for Michael at least, drawing is the key: Michael Harvey is simply very good at drawing. We all need a range of skills to be good letterers: understanding a brief, imagination, designing, drawing, using our hands to manipulate tools of various sorts, knowing when to stop. Some of us are natural sprinters, others tend towards stamina, we each have a unique mix of hand/eye, right brain/left brain skills. We can all draw letters more or less, but a natural facility in drawing is, it seems to me, the foremost of Michael’s talents, and accounts for the relaxed ease of his letters. You either have it or you don’t, and to a rare degree, he has just got it.